The Kurds – how to make a voice audible?

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The Kurds are one of the larger nations, with 40 million people. They inhabit a region that currently belongs to the territory of four countries: Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran. Kurdish independence movements have always attracted special attention to the problem of their national identity. However, as studies and experiences of scientists from the Jagiellonian University have shown, this is not the only issue worth focusing on.

So far, very few research units throughout the world, mainly individual scientists, have investigated topics related to the Kurds. Due to various reasons, the knowledge about the Kurds and their culture that has been obtained so far is scattered and needs systematization. Moreover, the scientists usually focus on the issue of national identity, which in the case of Kurds is a quite complex and ambiguous problem, but doubtlessly not the only one worth focus. Such a limited area of study results in the creation of a distorted image of this nation as a group that is constantly "fighting for something" and has nothing interesting to offer the world, while the Kurdish reality is actually multi-faceted and interesting.

Language as a foundation

Based on their difficult experiences, Kurdish authors discuss numerous universal problems. However, due to the dominant aspect of perception of the so-called "Kurdish issue," they often remain a group whose voice is neglected and marginalized. "This also results from the fact that knowledge of Kurdish language, especially the two most common dialects, Kurmanji and Sorani, is still rare. If we leave out scientists of Kurdish origin, we could count people who speak the languages fluently on the fingers of one hand," explains Joanna Bocheńska, PhD, from the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Jagiellonian University. And still, it is the language that is the basis for a deeper and multi-dimensional insight into the culture or everyday reality of people.

Knowledge of Kurdish language is the basis of the research carried out at the Section for Kurdish Studies that was created in 2008 at the Department of Iranian Studies at the Institute of Oriental Studies .This enabled researchers to conduct unique studies on Kurdish culture and social reality, resulting in the creation of a solid base that may be used for the launch of an interdisciplinary research project employing the experiences and knowledge of various fields of the humanities. This will enable the scientists to explore Kurdish reality in a manner different from the patterns reproduced so far, which have focused on the notions of "a nation without a state," "minority," "exile," or "terrorism."

Bookshop in Hawlêr (Erbil), South Kurdistan. Photo: Joanna Bocheńska


Cultural value and the opinion of the weaker

"The aim of our studies is to analyze the continuity and change of Kurdish culture and reality in reference to ethical, literary, or social issues," says Joanna Bocheńska, leader of the project and member of the team of scientists from the Section for Kurdish Studies. Members of the research team also include scientists connected with the Institute of Middle and Far East of the Jagiellonian University and with the Institute of History of the Pontifical University of John Paul II.

Classical and contemporary Kurdish literature became the starting point for the project. For example, according to Mehmed Uzun, the late Kurdish author writing in the Kurmanji dialect, for the future of the Kurds and Kurdistan it is essential for the Kurds and their neighbors to assign the proper value to the cultural heritage of other, smaller ethnic and religious groups of the region (such as, for example, the Yazidi or Assyrian Christians). Along with the Kurds, they became protagonists of his novels, such as the epic work Hawara Dicleyê (English: The Cry of the Tiger River)."

Such approach is an attempt to look at the Kurds from a postcolonialist point of view. Protagonists of Kurdish novels and short stories are often "sensitive," "victimized" people, who are, however, not deprived of the belief in the power of narration which, if heard and correctly interpreted, may in turn become the key to understanding "otherness," "problems," and "transformations." We have used such structure of the cognitive perspective in order to investigate not only Kurdish literature, but also the functions of Kurdish cultural institutions. They are relatively new, although their activity is one of more interesting attempts to achieve importance, and thus to obtain cultural and political rights. Another research objective will be to analyze the role of translator and translations (from foreign languages into Kurdish) in the process of shaping the world of values and national identity.

Centre for Kurdish Studies:

Another subject of analyses are the relations between the Kurds and other minorities, Christians in particular. In Iraqi Kurdistan, both the Kurds and Assyrian Christians used to be "equally" prosecuted by the regime. Gaining independence by the Kurds has changed these relationships to some extent. Now it is the Kurds who decide about empowerment and, as happens quite often, they sometimes care about their Assyrian neighbors and sometimes they neglect them. Colonial politics has contributed to the emergence of so-called "dominoes" in the subordination system, when the colonized nation became a "colonizer" with respect to minor groups. This makes it necessary to investigate the extent to which current socio-political reality in Iraqi Kurdistan (which enjoys autonomy) and Turkish Kurdistan (which is still deprived of such autonomy) reflects the idea of change, and to what extent it still remains under the influence of colonial politics, for example with respect to Christian minorities.


Confronting the dynamics of change in the Middle East

The work of the scientists will result in systematization of knowledge about Kurdish culture, contemporary reality of Kurdistan, and the situation of Kurds inhabiting Europe. However, the researchers focus primarily on carrying out completely novel and unique studies that are based on the analysis of Kurdish art and interviews with people who are responsible for the implementation of Kurdish cultural policy or with representatives of Christian minority groups.

Deeper understanding of Middle Eastern, Muslim and, in this case, Kurdish culture will help this heritage achieve an equal position in the global pantheon of literary or film achievements. Today, only lack of knowledge and lack of will to know the "Other" prevent the Kurdish classic Ehmedê Xanî from being studied along with Shakespeare and becoming a part of inspiring common good. The image of inhabitants of the Middle East, perceived only through the lens of problems and threats, is detrimental, harmful and dangerous, as it constitutes the basis for fear and contempt towards others, who are "not as wise," "not as developed," or "permanently disabled." We need to remember that each totalitarian regime was based precisely on depriving future victims of the voice of culture. This made it easier to transform one group in the eyes of other groups into "sub-people" who could be freely managed and eliminated.

"The objective of the project is team work, comparing and discussing results. Interdisciplinarity, in spite of the popularity of the concept itself, still does not seem to be particularly popular in Polish Oriental studies, although only the ability to create multi-disciplinary teams and the sharing of various experiences can provide a way to understand the dynamically changing reality in the Middle East," Bocheńska points out.

Because to this, an extra-scientific yet essential aim from the perspective of the future of Kurdish studies in Poland, is the development of international co-operation, obtaining content-related support of experienced research units and most of all, inviting Kurdish scientists and intellectuals to cooperate. The project may also enable the Jagiellonian University to become an important center of Kurdish studies that will attract the Kurdish diaspora dispersed throughout Europe in the near future. The Kurds, and their social and artistic activity, have become an important element of the multicultural European kaleidoscope. It should be studied with attention equal to the social and political phenomena connected with the presence of immigrants, as it is the culture that creates a valuable, indispensable context for a deeper understanding of this reality. Without it, we will be unable to create anything or to care about our stable future together.

Research team: Joanna Bocheńska, PhD, Institute of Oriental Studies – Project Manager; Renata Kurpiewska-Korbut, PhD, Institute of the Middle and Far East; Marcin Rzepka, PhD, Institute of History, The Pontifical University of John Paul II in Kraków; Krzysztof Lalik, PhD student, Institute of the Middle and Far East